Alabama’s survival was the nobler of the two. Facing archrival Auburn on the road, this year’s installment of the Iron Bowl was a classic football game. It realistically cost Mark Ingram the Heisman Trophy, as the Auburn defense shut him down and held the Tide to 73 yards rushing. But give all credit to the Crimson Tide defense and to quarterback Greg McElroy. The former gave up a couple big plays, but there was never a sense that Auburn really had a cohesive offensive attack going that could sustain a drive. McElroy wasn’t great, but he was efficient. He didn’t make mistakes, something that contrasted him with counterpart Chris Todd, who threw one crucial interception and should’ve had a couple more. And McElroy repeatedly hooked up with Julius Jones on some clutch third-down plays that kept the winning drive alive in the 26-21 triumph. CBS analyst Steve Beurlein kept saying that Jones needed to make more plays down the field, not just the simple 7-10 yard patterns he was running. Beurlein’s point was a good one—it’s tough to drive the length of the field in bits and pieces at a time. But ‘Bama made it work and Jones caught no fewer than four clutch balls, all short, but all timely on the drive that gave Nick Saban a second straight 12-0 season.
The Texas defense must have been bloated from the turkey on Thursday night, because I have never seen them play as poorly as they did in this game. To be fair, they were on a short week, they were the traveling team and they were facing an archrival in a jacked-up stadium. And Texas A&M, for all its flaws on defense, can move the football. Both teams did with ridiculous ease. Containment of quarterbacks in the pocket was terrible, as Colt McCoy was made to look like Jamelle Holieway sprinting up and down the field for a stunning 175 rushing yards. Tackling in general looked like a flag football game. It ended 49-39, with Texas surviving the scare.
It goes without saying that Texas can’t play like this and expect to beat Nebraska next week, much less Florida or Alabama. But we should also say that the rarity of defensive play like this from Mack Brown’s team, combined with all the variables mentioned above, lead me to believe that it was an aberration which they survived. And I suspect McCoy may have locked up the Heisman Trophy with his performance, barring something heroic from Tebow next week against Alabama. I’ve made it clear that I find either of these two quarterbacks winning the award to be based solely on hype, not performance. But if it comes to McCoy or Tebow, I would have to choose the Texas quarterback.
Cincinnati and Boise State kept alive their own perfect seasons, but continued to showcase their own serious defensive flaws in the process. The Bearcats beat Illinois 49-36, a game not as close as the score makes it sound, but one in which shaky Illini quarterback Juice Williams was both mistake-free and explosive, something Big Ten fans can tell you is a combination he rarely puts together. Tony Pike had more than enough answers, throwing for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns for Cincy. This remains an extraordinary year for Brian Kelly’s program, but if we are talking about putting them in a class with the Big Three, the defensive meltdowns can’t be ignored. Fresno State, UConn, West Virginia and now Illinois have moved the ball with ease on this team. That’s a clear pattern and none of those teams are going to be mistaken for the Saints or Patriots anytime soon. Pitt is up next. The Panthers lost to West Virginia last night on a last-second field goal, but they have the weapons to challenge the Bearcats in what should be a great game for the Big East’s BCS berth.
The same goes for Boise State. Last night, they beat Nevada 44-33. It was another WAC title and an amazing third 12-0 season in four years. But the Bronco defense was not up to snuff, against an offense that Notre Dame shut out back in September (and Nevada was experienced at all the key places, lest you think the September zero be attributed to inexperience). There’s not much of an argument for placing the Broncos in the national title game, and the main argument for putting them in a major bowl would be this—if they are frozen out, they go to the Humanitarian Bowl, where the opponent would be akin to Bowling Green. Conversely, if the Big Ten (Penn State or Iowa) is frozen out, they go Capital One and play someone like LSU. I’d like to at least see how Boise matches up with the better teams and shipping them off to the bowl equivalent of Siberia isn’t going to do it.